It was a Friday afternoon and I was coming towards the end of not only a busy week but a busy day. I hadn’t planned out the day as well as I might have, and as a result had a smaller gap than I’d like for my exercise. As my zoom call was coming to a close, I could see the rowing machine (erg) set up behind my webcam with my runners and shorts laid out and ready to go. My window would be 20 minutes of activity on the erg coupled with some stretching and a quick shower, then onto my final call of the day before picking up the kids from creche. The erg is a fantastic fitness machine in that I can work on a range of fitness elements at once, get a really good workout in a short time period and it also offers the raw honesty of telling me exactly what my output is and by default how hard I am working. As great as it is, I was in no mood for the erg on this Friday afternoon.
When my call ended, my moment of honesty arrived. Do I attend to a variety of other “work related” tasks that were on my desk or do I put my shorts on and get rowing. On this occasion I chose the latter and 20 minutes later fell off the erg in a heap of sweat and breathing heavy. 5 minutes later, I was in the shower delighted with my effort and feeling more energised going into my last call of the week and the weekend ahead. There have been many times when I have chosen differently and not reaped the benefit of doing something like rowing, that helps my mental fitness and agility. Choosing to do what you want to do, or that you know you need to do, when you really don’t feel like doing it, is a part of mental fitness. So what exactly is mental fitness and is this different to mental health?
I view this similarly to physical health and physical fitness. If I use myself as an example, my physical health is good in that I don’t have any physical illnesses, impairments and my bloods are healthy. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am physically fit. Many of us can gravitate towards certain fitness activities that we enjoy. For some it might be running, for others it’s lifting weights or doing exercise classes. However pure physical fitness is very multi-dimensional and includes a variety of things such as strength, balance, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, body movement, flexibility and endurance. Physical fitness is very multidimensional and of course improves our overall physical health.
For me, mental health and mental fitness are very similar. Again, if I use myself as an example, my mental health is very good in that I am not suffering from any mental illnesses. However, this doesn’t mean that I am mentally fit. A number of years ago, I began to explore what does mental fitness and agility really mean. When I ask people what comes to mind when they hear the words mental fitness and agility, things like resilience, mental toughness, dealing with setbacks and managing stress are often mentioned. I went searching for a psychological definition of mental fitness and agility but I never really landed on something that I felt was of practical use. One study I came across by Robinson et al. (2015) defined mental fitness as “the modifiable capacity to utilise resources and skills to flexibly adapt to challenges or advantages, enabling thriving”. While I would agree with this, it didn’t feel complete and I also wanted something more relatable and useable so I’ve come up with my own measure of mental fitness, which has 5 core pillars.
1. Love and Ease
The extent to which we can feel a sense of self love and ease in our day to day lives and the ability to feel a degree of ease not just when things are going well in life but also through challenging times.
2. Presence, Focus & Engagement
The ability to be truly present throughout our daily lives, to focus intentionally on the things that are important on any given day and to be genuinely engaged in the different areas of our lives when we are in them. For example, being fully focused on the most important elements of my work when working. Being fully engaged with my kids when we are playing together and similarly being engaged and present with my wife when we have time together.
3. Stretch & Development
The ability and the inclination to stretch beyond our comfort zones in life. This could be in any aspect of our lives. To genuinely “push the boat out” and stretch ourselves to develop as a person. To do what we know we want to do, or what we feel we need to do, when we absolutely don’t feel like doing it. To be able to handle the emotional discomfort that may accompany uncomfortable situations that challenge us or stretch us in a new way.
4. Environmental Response
This refers to our ability to respond well to challenges in our environment, in the moment when they happen. To be able to withstand and lean into the unease that the unknown or taking a risk can bring. To have the ability to navigate the change and uncertainty that a certain path, choice or circumstance may present us with.
5. Performing Under Pressure
To be able to perform in life when the pressure comes on. To have the emotional awareness to be able to frame or reframe stressful moments in life so that we can act in a constructive way. To stay calm and keep self-doubt in check when the stakes are high. To maintain that personal self-belief in our own ability to realise a desired outcome when things are going against us.
In working with clients, I use my own methodology to assess each of these five pillars so that people can then take action in whatever area is most important to them. Perhaps by simply reflecting on each of these 5 pillars, you can gain a bit more clarity on a particular area of your own mental fitness and agility you would like to improve and consider the impact this might have on your life as a whole…